Palm Beach, once considered a staid emblem of the establishment, has shed its quiet image in the pandemic. Young families in search of better quality of life, new swirls of hedge fund and private equity money and the lure of lower taxes, has rocketed this once sleepy city into ‘Hamptons South.’
Palm Beach has always operated as a living relic of the American Gilded Age. Where else could comic American fashions like the printed whale trouser and purple blazer combo be worn with gentle yet acknowledged irony? Where else would blonde scions of American fortunes with names like Phipps or Flagler drop their tennis racquets and sip Arnold Palmers (Palm Beach’s signature beverage, half ice tea and half lemonade, named for the famous golfer) in their Mediterranean Revival houses. On Worth Avenue, young, dishy mothers ran around in the de rigueur uniform of Lily Pulitzer’s sorbet coloured shifts while their men in matching hues of raspberry, lime and lemon hit the links for most of the afternoon.
That slice of life is still there, simmering along in the private clubs as it always has, but the clubs are no longer the sole centre of power. In the last 20 or so years, there has been a seismic shift in Palm Beach fuelled by the arrival of the hedge fund and private equity billionaires and their accompanying army of attendants. In the last 10 years, billionaires Ken Griffin, Stephen A. Schwarzman, Paul Tudor Jones II and Steven Schonfeld all bought gargantuan properties on West Palm Beach billionaire’s row. (When the pandemic hit, Griffin put up his traders, and their families, in the Four Seasons for months on end so as not to disturb the deal flow).
LOVE SHACK FANCY AT THE ROYAL POINCIANA PLAZA
Billionaires are not really news in Palm Beach. Former President Donald Trump is back here now, scheming behind the fortress-like walls of his palatial estate and mercifully no longer able to stop traffic for hours. Henry Kravis and his wife Marie-Josée, hidden from every prying eye by a 20-foot hedge, Emilia and Pepe Fanjul, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and girlfriend Diana Taylor are deeply enmeshed members of Palm Beach society.
What is news is the fresh crop of hedgies who’ve moved down more recently are not in their 70s or 80s, or even their 50s, they are young men (and they are all men) in their 30s and 40s who bring the relentless intensity of youth. They all follow Chase Coleman III, 45, whose fund Tiger Global Management did so well in 2020 that he, personally, took home $3 billion. A descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Governor of New York, Coleman has deep ties to Palm Beach. He married Stephanie Ercklentz (who appeared to her later regret in Jamie Johnson’s 2003 BORN RICH) in the celebrated Bethesda-by-the Sea Church.
One of his lieutenants, Scott Shleifer, age 38, just bought a $122 million waterfront house (the most expensive property ever sold in Florida to date). As Coleman and Co. drift down to Palm Beach, so will other wannabe financial titans. So many New Yorkers are in Palm Beach right now the Chief Financial Officer of Florida made the cheeky suggestion that the NYSE should move to the sunshine state.
Visiting Palm Beach in mid-winter is to experience a way of post-pandemic living the rest of the world is hoping to get to by late spring or early summer. It is also a throwback to a 1950s version of America, with clean streets, uniform architecture and an un-diverse crowd. The private clubs may still have archaic policies. (For the experience of being a Jewish person excluded by the private clubs, read Barbara Amiel’s chapter on Palm Beach in her memoir Friends & Enemies). As time goes on, Palm Beach might attract a more diverse group of people, but we didn’t see any sign of it.
THE DUKE AND DUCHESS OF WINDSOR IN PALM BEACH, 1948
We stayed at the family-owned Colony Hotel, opened in 1947 and once the winter home for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The royal couple had their own suite and a gold telephone which accompanied them everywhere in case they were required at a moment’s notice on state business. The Churchill family are also Colony Hotel regulars, with Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill a frequent visitor and Sir Winston Churchill’s granddaughter Edwina Sandys stopping by from time to time. Reopened in 2020, the hotel was refurbished by Palm Beach native Celerie Kemble. The lobby is a particular triumph, a collaboration between painted wallpaper company De Gournay, Kemble Interiors and the hotel’s owner, Sarah Wetenhall, it depicts the native flora and fauna of Florida against a backdrop the colour of peach ice cream.
Old Palm Beach, with all its glamour and hilarity is alive and well at The Colony. Scores of attendants in pastel shorts walked tiny dogs, carried enormous suitcases for leopard clad ladies and in my favourite 21st century Faulty Towers moment, figured out how to remove the Tesla which had locked itself in the hotel’s driveway.
COLONY HOTEL BUGGY, CONVENIENTLY SITUATED AT THE TOP OF WORTH AVENUE FOR SHOPPING EXTRAVAGANZAS
Early in the morning, ready to hit the beach, we were ferried the 30-second ride to the ocean by one of the Colony’s beach buggies, given a pink Yeti hamper of food and drink and set up with pink beach chairs for the afternoon.
Later, we made our way to Wellington, the multi-billion dollar winter equestrian spot, a half an hour away from Palm Beach and observed Georgina Bloomberg, Doda Miranda (Athina Onassis’ ex) and Olympic champion Beezie Madden competing at close range. The close proximity of Wellington adds another layer of value to Palm Beach, as polo, eventing and dressage are all easily available.
EQUESTRIAN COMPETITION IN WELLINGTON
That night we headed to Swifty’s in the Colony, a beloved New York institution which reopened in Palm Beach this winter. Waiters were masked as were patrons when moving from spot to spot but it was bustling. Sitting outdoors, enjoying steamed artichokes and crab cakes, under a canopy of purple orchids on a hot Florida night after a grim winter in New York, was delightful.
It’s just one of many familiar Upper East Side restaurants who now also call Palm Beach home. La Goulue, Saint Ambroeus and Le Bilboquet have all opened during the pandemic. Although the timing was clearly right, not one of the openings happened on the spur of the moment. Philippe Delgrange of Le Bilboquet told Tatler over a tower of seafood in a room teeming with Park Avenue transplants, that plans for the Florida location had been in the works for three years.
SOUL CYCLE AT THE ROYAL POINCIANA PLAZA
Having so much new competition might prove hard for the long time stalwarts, unless, like Buccan, owned by Piper Quinn, they have retained their cache as much for their frisky single scene as for their tuna and foie gras sliders.
On our last morning, we took a bike before stopping for one last meal at Saint Ambroeus situated in Royal Poinciana Plaza, a retail heaven. At the next door table David Beckham sat with his daughter and a few other men discussing investing ideas, perhaps starting his own SPAC. Now that celebrities have discovered Palm Beach, ‘Hamptons South’ seems truer than ever.
ST. AMBROES ITALIAN RESTAURANT AT THE ROYAL POINCIANA PLAZA